Erlend Grefsrud, Co-Founder of Bifrost Entertainment, chatted with Cat about the semi-mystical founding of Bifrost, why he thinks the Xbox One is “ill-conceived”, why you have to be crazy to start a game company in Norway, and games art.
Read Part One here: http://n4g.com/user/blogpos...
CAT: Why are you indie, and what does being an independent developer mean to you?
Erlend: I make games because I have to. It's how I think and dream. Some people think in stories or melodies or images, I think in terms of systems of mechanics and dynamics and risk and reward and difficulty curves and telegraphing and signalling and oh man. I'm a game design junkie, and making games is how I get my fix.
Being independent is the best way to make the games I want to make and play. I really wanted to get into the AAA industry back in ye olden days, but the way it's developing puts me off. I have no interest in being a little cog in a machine that churns out a slightly improved version of last year's big hit. I know just saying that is a big cliche nowadays, but I genuinely think this is true. I know what goes on inside big studios, and it's not pretty.
Besides, I want to have a hand in every part of development. I'm one of those pesky Jacks of all Trades, and I like to be involved in design, art, programming, sound, writing, whatever needs doing and shapes the game. That will never happen unless I'm way high up in the studio hierarchy, and them I'm probably managing or making executive decisions rather than noodling around in the gameplay code trying to make sure the jumps feel really good or that the UI is as clear and expressive as it can be.
I don't really dream of leading a horde of game developers to glory. I dream of making games that make people think and feel, and I think the best way to do that is to do it by myself and with people who I trust and admire, and who wants the same thing as me. That's rare inside a big company.
CAT: What are the challenges unique to developing in Norway? How international is the game development scene these days?
Erlend: First and foremost, the cost level is completely insane. Norway is a proper bubble, where "normal" rules don't apply. The tax levels are not exactly business-friendly, employment laws are watertight, and average salaries are probably the highest in Europe.
A game studio in Norway is instantly way less competitive than one based practically anywhere else. Now, that's not a bad thing -- Norway is a great place to be an employee, and then there's the wealth equality, high quality of life and tremendous social services. I decided I didn't want to be a regular salary worker, and that's my own responsibility.
I don't really want Norway to change to make it easier for me to make games, although I have a sneaking suspicion things will change fast enough even without my complaining.
Outside of that, Norway would be a great place to work. Tons of talent, tons of passion, everything you need to make great games -- but games are terribly risky, and it's hard to justify spending twice as much as everyone else does, especially when talking to publishers and venture capitalists.
[i[Image from Myriad
CAT: In the Mini Q&A, you mentioned the ability to “help define an emerging art form”. Can you expand on that?
Erlend: Games aren't done yet. Of course, it’s silly to say that anything is “done”, but let’s say many forms are more staid than games are.
Literature has been around for so long we find stuff carved into rocks that we can't read and only assume has some kind of meaning. Cinema builds on the ancient traditions of drama, painting, sculpture and, of course, photography, so that's got loads of baggage too. Same goes for music -- I can't really invent a new form of musical notation, whip up some instruments and change the way people listen to music.
But games are fresh. Games are a bit like comic books, a synthesis of different forms that has fantastic expressive potential. I think I like comic books even more than film and literature, simply because it's so rich with potential, there's so much that hasn't been done yet, and there are no set boundaries or clever books telling you how to make a million bucks by following a simple formula.
Digital games have been readily available for consumers for less than half a century. Until fairly recently, it was basically technical wizardry, where you needed super-talented engineers and artists willing to give everything to push the envelope just a little. That meant developers and financiers alike got pretty risk-averse, and quickly settled into fairly well-established boundaries.
Now, there's a lot of interesting work being done inside of those boundaries, but I think it's even more exciting to break them down, to look at what HASN'T been done, to discover a way to use the form that no-one's thought about yet. That's possible, I think, in music, comics and games -- and not many other places.
CAT: What are your thoughts on the ongoing games-as art discussion?
Erlend: Games are art, and I am artist. Period. The never-ending debate about what is and isn't art is mostly just a territorial squabble among critics, academics and especially the Terribly Rich, for whom the world of Fine Art is a great way to invest money and reap massive, unwarranted gains through clever PR and marketing, without paying capital gains tax on the when they finally sell the piece after leaving it to valuate for a couple of years.
The art world is a pretty murky place. I don't aspire to hobnob with Sothesby auctoneers or deliver corporate art to bank lobbies. I'm sure there's more than enough other artists who dream of doing that.
[i[Image from Myriad
CAT: You also mentioned wanting to create games where players have influence and are not limited to a pre-authored path. What are your favorite applications of this in existing games?
Erlend: Wow, hard question. Paradoxically, I'm really fond of ultra-hardcore, really linear action games like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Bayonetta, that kind of stuff. But the reason I like them is because there's so much scope for doing your own thing inside of them. Those are the kind of games where playing well looks and feels really cool, where being good at the game means a hell of a lot, and I really like that. I like to master games.
On the other hand, I do like carving my own path in something like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, and I'm currently binging on rogue-likes, and really relishing how unpredictable they are and how damn good fun it is to fail at them.
In these cases, I'm not so much interested in, you know, picking conversation options or deciding what quest I'm gonna do next, I'm more interested in how my journey is, well, pretty much my own. Much of that is illusion of course, but I like being fooled well.
As for Personal All-Time Favourite -- I don't really do that, what I like changes a lot from year to year, as I learn new things about the different ways games work and can work. But I guess the most inspiring example is Katamari Damacy. It gives you a little sandbox, it gives you a few rules and a goal, and then you're just left to have fun. I love that, especially when it's as charming, generous, inventive and playful as Katamari Damacy was.
CAT: What is your vision for this moving forward? Are you going to be creating a Witcher-style rpg? :)
Erlend: Well, it's funny that you say so, because I'm planning to do something more narrative next time, primarily because I'm really critical of storytelling and games and frankly think most developers are doing a terrible job at conceiving, writing and executing their stories.
Now, it's easy to criticize and tell people what they should and shouldn't do, so I feel it's only fair and honest that I try my hand at it. I've got quite a few ideas of ways to tell stories in games that have, as far as I know, never been tried before and if things work out the way I hope, that'll be my Next Big Thing.
I won't say much, except that it will most likely be parser-driven, like the very first text adventure games that came out in the late 70s and early 80s.
Day 26 | Bifrost Entertainment